Hollywood is ready for a kudocast overhaul.
“I don’t think it’s enough to just hand out awards. In order to survive, award shows need to be the variety specials of the new millennium,” says Bob Bain, a producer of the Billboard and Teen Choice awards shows.
The Jan. 16 Golden Globes slumped to their worst performance since moving to NBC in 1996. The People’s Choice Awards posted its lowest ratings on record.
All this bad news comes at the height of awards season, with Oscar noms to be unveiled Jan. 25 and the ceremony slated for Feb. 27.
And the fear extends beyond this season: The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, still stunned over the lowest Emmy ratings in 14 years, has decided to give a makeover to its kudocast next September.
Everyone has a stake in keeping the genre healthy.
Awards shows make big bucks for the non-profit org handing out prizes, as well as the network. Studio execs like the opportunity to give plugs to current and upcoming films and TV shows. And stars, constantly battered by gossip about their private lives, like to remind the public that they are artists whose work should be taken seriously.
And showbiz honchos like the opportunity to sit with their rivals for a few hours and feel a sense of community.
But even supporters of the genre acknowledge that it needs a facelift. Awards-show producers are following a format that’s been locked in since March 19, 1953, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and NBC initiated the template for televised prize-giving.
That Oscarcast drew 82% of the viewing audience, but back then, movies were the primary force in entertainment; TV audiences were also avid filmgoers, who had a vested interest in the winners. Now, the spectrum is much broader and movies constitute a much smaller percentage of the public’s entertainment dollar.
The Oscar folk want to maintain their format: They like the fact that their organization maintains a tradition. The big question is why everybody else uses the same style.
“They don’t call these shows ‘specials’ for nothing,” says CBS specials topper Jack Sussman. “If they’re not going to be special and you don’t reinvent them year after year, you’re going to get your butt kicked.”
That’s because most shows aren’t the only game in town anymore — and if the viewers don’t see something new, they’re going to walk.
“You can’t expect people to keep tuning into these shows when there’s so much mediocrity being thrown on the screen,” one exec says of the surplus of award telecasts.
Industry execs point the blame in several directions.
Major awards shows still look, feel and sound like they did when TV was in its infancy: Big auditorium, orchestra music, applause, list of nominees, winner jogs onstage to give a dull acceptance speech. That’s not necessarily a winning formula for 2005, no matter how glamorous the nominees look or how jazzy that orchestra sounds.
The Globes, for one, is being stifled by its success. A few years ago, it was a fun party, and the winners often gave outrageous acceptance speeches. As the ratings have risen, the show has become “important,” and everyone is on their best behavior, being stiffly polite as the cameras watch them “party.”
Equally important is the fact that the awards glut may have finally reached saturation point. And the crowd keeps expanding: The WB picked up the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. awards (which aired two weeks ago to less-than-stellar returns), while at least one producer has been pitching a new TV kudocast to rival the Emmys.
“The significance of the awards has been diminished by all of these shows,” Bain says.
Also, auds once relished the opportunity to glimpse film stars who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead on the smallscreen. Now viewers may be getting their fill of those celebs thanks to daytime gabbers, glossy mags like US Weekly and loud shows like “Entertainment Tonight.”
But it’s not just a question of movie stars. Couch potatoes aren’t even interested in watching their TV faves being honored, as the low Emmy ratings prove. Apparently viewers have OD’d on the chance to see the stars of shows they’ve never seen as they tearfully thank a litany of agents and execs they’ve never heard of.
“They’ve got to make the categories more relevant,” another net exec says of the shows. “If you want to make them entertaining, give the audience what they’re looking for — not what the industry is looking for.”
One kudofest that’s managed to buck the trend — even in the face of lower-rent rivals like the “Radio Music Awards” — is the Grammys, which has posted stable ratings for several years.
Unlike handout-heavy kudocasts, the Grammys are able to reinvent themselves every year through unique performances. Viewers come for the entertainment but stay for the awards. It’s a mantra other shows may want to adopt.
In years past, the Grammys only showcased nominated songs, meaning plenty of old tunes being performed on the broadcast. But for the third year, the Feb. 13 event will boast “Grammy moments,” meaning perfs geared specially for the show.
Two years ago, it was Simon & Garfunkel reuniting, plus a Clash tribute led by Bruce Springsteen. Last year offered Prince and Beyonce doing a medley of “Purple Rain” tunes, a Beatles tribute and Chick Corea with Foo Fighters.
The Grammys have also tried to keep things fresh by trying a lot of different hosts and bouncing between Gotham and Hollywood.
Over the years, the Video Music Awards have done a number of things to generate interest in their awards including showing past kudosfests endlessly in the lead-up.
“The stars aren’t just accepting awards, they’re doing their jobs,” a specials exec says. “The Grammys, the MTV Music Awards, they’re entertaining shows.”
By focusing on entertainment, the Grammys and MTV Awards can avoid a pitfall plaguing shows that depend on viewer familiarity with the nominees.
A large segment of the viewing auds didn’t see the movies honored during the Globes kudofest. Of the 11 films competing in the Globes’ two best picture categories, only one film had grossed more than $100 million by the night of the kudocast: “The Incredibles,” which lost to “Sideways” in the comedy/musical category.
Aside from “Ray,” which has already grossed $72 million, the nine other best pic nominees had sold fewer than $50 million each in tickets going into the ceremony, with three of them — “Million Dollar Baby,” “Kinsey” and “Hotel Rwanda” — still waiting to cross the $10 million mark.
The data is inconclusive on this. The Oscars got a 37% ratings rise (to 55.2 million viewers) in 1998, the year “Titanic” was nominated. Pundits often cite that year as proof that viewership depends on fans’ enthusiasm for the nominees.
But that one year seems to be an anomaly. The wildly popular “Lord of the Rings” films were best-pic contenders in the last three years and the average viewership for those three awards shows was 39 million, which is fairly consistent with other Oscarcasts.
As for the TV side of the 2005 Golden Globes, there seems to be one inescapable conclusion: The stars of “Desperate Housewives” are no ratings match for an actual episode of “Desperate Housewives” airing at the same time.
At the TV Academy, network execs say it’s high time the Emmys stop spending so much time awarding programs that few people have seen.
Last fall’s Emmycast attracted just 14 million viewers, the second-smallest audience on record for the event. At the time, observers surmised that viewers passed on the show because they didn’t recognize winners like HBO’s “Angels in America” (which drew fewer than 4 million viewers in its original run).
In a move that has already angered execs at cable outlets, the org is considering dumping most of its movie and miniseries awards from the Primetime Emmys telecast. With the networks — which still produce and air the Emmys, after all — mostly out of the longform business, they say it’s time to downgrade those awards to the less glamorous Creative Arts Emmy ceremony.
Such a switch (still in the early discussion phase) would help shrink the number of kudos handed out during the three-hour show and possibly make way for a larger presence by shows that are more widely viewed, such as reality skeins. (Some, however, claim that the switch is just the networks’ way of downplaying HBO’s continued dominance in the longform category.)
“There are many issues to be dealt with,” says TV Academy prexy Todd Leavitt, who admits the org has a tough debate ahead.
Some execs believe other award shows should be taking a similar hard look, arguing that it’s high time to jettison the awards that only industry folk care about. Viewers, after all, don’t recognize the people being honored for costume design (in the case of the Oscars) or directing for a variety/music/comedy program (an Emmy category).
Financially, the kudocasts are doing well for the non-profit orgs as well as the networks.
ABC paid the Academy $54 million for the 2004 Oscars. The Alphabet net sold 58 thirty-second ad spots, including the preshow, for $1.5 million each. Less the 15% commission to ad agencies, this would bring the network $74 million.
In 2004, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. netted $6.1 million from NBC for Golden Globe broadcast rights, which was a 60% increase over 2003’s record haul of $3.6 million. According to ad agency sources, the Peacock sold 60 thirty-second ad spots for $360,000 to $400,000.
This would bring NBC (less 15% commissions) $20 million. Plus there’s the income from local spots on the Peacock’s owned-and-operated stations.
Though the Globes and the Oscars sell roughly the same amount of national advertising time, the HFPA event has more promotions and local ad time. In the HFPA’s three-hour show, the camera is off the Globes for a total of 47 minutes 30 seconds. The Academy’s show, though often much longer, cuts away from the show for only 33 minutes, 30 seconds.
In 2004, the TV Academy received $5.5 for the Emmy domestic broadcast rights. Ad sources said ABC sold 63 thirty-second spots for $330,000- $500,000 each.
Awards shows aren’t going to go away — the genre still makes buckets of money, generates headlines and gooses box office returns, album sales and TV series ratings (well, sometimes).
“There will definitely be attrition. These shows are too expensive, and they need to perform well to justify the cost,” Bain says. “But there is a bottom-line interest in celebrities and award shows that will keep these things on the air in the long run.”
Phil Gallo, Bill Higgins, Rick Kissell and Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.